Presidential debates get more intolerable with each passing quadrennium. A new low was reached Thursday when minder/moderator Chris Matthews, asked the ten aspirants to the Republican Presidential nomination to raise their hands if they did not believe in evolution. Three of the ten not very prepossessing men stuck their hands up in the approved kindergarten style.In real kindergartens, as opposed to the political debate variety, the children are encouraged to interact with each other, but the candidates taking part in this one were admonished to speak only to the teacher. The ninety-minute affair bore a resemblance to a pop quiz, although they are not usually given to pre-schoolers.
The night previous to the Republican do, the French had a political debate between presidential candidates. What a contrast. The debate, every minute of which was televised, lasted two and a hours and was conducted without the doubtful ministrations of some media news personality asking questions. Back and forth the two French candidates went like grown-ups disputing. The 1858 debateS between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas on the question of slavery and the future of the union went on for hours.
What passes for a political debates in the United States today is little more than dueling sound bites. The Republican candidates were restricted to sixty-second answers to the questions put to them. Such time limitations are the rule in American debating and give rise to the suspicion that these politicians are unable to discuss a topic at a greater length than 100 words. After that they apparently run out of material. They are programmed for short bursts and little more.
C-Span watchers see this every time they watch the woeful activities on the floor of the House of Representatives. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, the members of the House walk to the lectern to speak for one minute each. All the Democrats say exactly the same thing; all the Republicans say exactly the same 100 words which is roughly how many words it takes to fill up a minute.
The level of discourse in the House and the Senate is so low that there are parents who, instead of grounding their teenage children for infractions of the family's rules, make them listen to three hours of floor discussion in Congress as a punishment. Some children have been known to beg their parents to ground them instead, so great is the pain our inarticulate, repetitive politicians inflict on innocent, tax paying ears.
In defense of their idiotic political displays, television executives and campaign operatives apparently believe that a minute of speech uninterrupted by either a murder or a copulation scene is about all TV viewers can take. America, they insist, suffers from attention deficit disorder. It's a nation with the fidgets.
Republicans call Ronald Reagan the Great Communicator. They should call him the Last Communicator, it being so rare that we get to hear a politician who can express him or herself with originality, power, grace, knowledge and reason.
The level of public discourse in the United States is of such inferior quality it is closer to advertising copy than human speech. But maybe human speech and the clash of ideas and emotion are not necessary.
If you go back to the time of H. L. Mencken or Mark Twain the educated classes also complained that American politicians were divided into two classes, vapid windbags and screeching baboons. Yet the country prospered.
If things are worse today it is because the windbags are gone. Most of today's pols are not able to deliver a sustain utterance in their own words of five minutes' duration. That leaves us with baboons emitting their loud short cries when the TV ringmaster tells them it's their turn. And still the Republic endures.
Nicholas von Hoffman is the author of A Devil's Dictionary of Business, now in paperback. He is a Pulitzer Prize losing author of thirteen books, including Citizen Cohn, and a columnist for the New York Observer.
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